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Do I need a permit for my film location?

While daunting, shooting on location adds a whole new layer of richness and authenticity to your videos that you simply cannot get at from filming at home...or your friend’s house...or your other friend’s house.

The only problem is...getting access.

Depending on the location you want to film in, you’re most likely going to need some sort of authorization to do so. But how will you know what kind of authorization you’ll need? And where do you go to get it? And is there any way that you can just...not get permission at all?

The legalities of filming on location are a migraine-inducing minefield all on their own. But from a big-picture perspective, you’ll only ever be faced with three options. Which we’re gonna go over right here.

Getting A Permit

When do I need one?

Permits are required for all commercial and non-commercial shoots taking place on public land (i.e. the street) or government property (i.e. national parks and public schools). The only way around this is if you’re not using any commercial equipment such as dollies, tripods, and generators and aren’t disturbing anyone.

How do I get one?

First you’ll need to work out which government body is responsible for issuing permits for the particular location you want to shoot in. There's no clear-cut way to go about this so your best bet it to Google or call around until you find the person or persons in charge.

Once you find them, they’ll most likely have you fill in a permit application detailing when, why, and for how long you need the location. Be prepared to provide supporting documentation (film budget, maps of where you plan to shoot, etc.), and always be as open and honest in your explanations as possible. Concealing the fact that your Central Park shoot will involve a simulated decapitation and a bunch of free-range Burmese pythons probably won’t go down so well when the park rangers stroll by and ask ‘What the flaming fallujah is going on?!’

How long will it take to be approved?

Expect a wait of anywhere between 3 days to 3 weeks after the date of submitting your application. If your shoot will require part of a street or road to be closed down then the process may take even longer so if possible, try to get your request in as soon as possible.

How much will it cost?

For low-budget productions, permit fees usually start at around $1,000. The more “blockbuster” you go, the bigger they become.

On top of this is insurance which, if you were planning to skimp on, think again. In order to obtain a permit in the first place, you will need to show proof that you’re crew is insured which can set you back a few hundred big ones.

Students, luckily you guys get a big pass on nearly all of this. Most universities and film schools provide basic insurance for any shoots carried out for coursework and many government agencies also offer massive student discounts on location permits. For example, in LA students are only required to cough up one-twentieth of what the pros pay.  

Other things to think about?

Assuming all goes to plan and you get your permit granted on time, there are a few more loops you’ll need to jump through before you’re completely lock and load—and that’s prepping for your shoot.

With location shooting, there’s none of the creature comforts one takes for granted when shooting in a studio. And I’m not just talking about food and water here. Porta potties, shade, shelter, sunscreen, first aid kids, a guy called Byron who dutifully stands there holding a light modifier all day long—depending on when or where you shoot, some, or maybe all of these items will need to be provided. So do yourself, and your crew, a massive solid and provide them.

Getting Permission

When do I need it?

Anytime you film on private property you will need to get permission. Failure to do so will almost certainly result in you being asked to adios.

And how exactly does permission differ from a permit? Well, where a permit is an official document declaring that someone is authorized to be somewhere or do something, permission is more informal and usually comes in the form of written or formal consent.

How do I get it?

Simple. Reach out to the owner or manager of the property, tell them you want to film there, and ask them a) if it’s possible, and b) if there’s any process you need to go through in order to obtain their seal of approval. Chances are, most private properties won’t have a formalized system for processing these kinds of requests. Instead, they’ll just bumble along through the process with you—that’s assuming they’re happy to host of course.

If you happen to come up against a big, fat ‘No,’ there are some ways that you might be able to twist the property owner’s arm. Start by assuring them that you’ll leave the property squeaky clean when you’re done and that you’ll give them a big, loud shout out in your film’s credits. Then from there, you’ll need to get creative, offering up anything you can think of to sweeten the deal.

If you’re trying to get access to a cafe or restaurant, guarantee a minimum spend on food and drink for your cast and crew on the day of your shoot or promise to hit them up with an avalanche of raving reviews on Yelp. Whatever you can throw out there is worth a shot, even if it none of it sticks. After all, you never know, your desperateness might be enough to endear you over the line.

How much will it cost?

If your shoot is going to impact the property’s ability to turn a profit in anyway then you’ll almost certainly be required to pay. There's no way of knowing how much this will be until you ask but the fee will be at the buisness owner's discretion—which means there may be some wriggle room.

If you do decide to negotiate the price down, offering to work with a smaller crew or after hours when the business is closed are two of your best bets. I once needed to film a sketch in a cinema and was able to bargain the owner down from $2,000 to $300 by agreeing to bump the shoot until after the last screening at 1 AM. Working in the wee hours is never much fun but when you’re saving $1,700, it’s definitely worth it.

Will I need a contract?

Technically speaking, no...but you should. As mentioned, this will probably be the first time the owner of your location has ever gone through something like before. So don’t just expect them to whip out a contract template and politely ask for your John Hancock. Instead, make it your job to draft one up.

Things to include: the agreed upon fee and times of the shoot; which specific areas and items on the property will be featured, which party is liable should the property be damaged, who will own the rights to the footage, and any points relating to how the property or should not be portrayed in the film. To get a better idea of how to structure a contract of this nature you may want to check out these samples here and here.

Going Guerrilla

What does this even mean?

It means being a total badass and shooting without a permit or permission.

What if I get caught?

Best case scenario, you manage to bust a move out of there before anyone asks to see your permit. Worst case scenario, the police catch you, hit you with a fine, and if they’re feeling extra salty, they might even confiscate your equipment too. Bah-Bowm!

Why would I risk this?

Because guerilla shooting can save you a booty-ton of money. That’s why It also means you get to bypass the permit application process which, if you’re on a deadline, can be a serious drag.

Is it common?

You betcha. So much so that even large-scale productions dabble in a bit of guerilla shooting every now and again. Remember the all those colosseum scenes in Way Of The Dragon? Or those subway scenes in Black Swan? Or the cemetery scene in Easy Rider? All filmed without a permit.

Are there any tricks to pulling it off?

Yes. Keep your crew lean and your equipment even leaner. This means lav mics instead of boom poles, DSLRs an smartphones instead of tripod-mounted camcorders, and always working as quickly and discreetly as possible. You’d also be wise to choose shooting times and locations where you’re less likely to be bothered by authorities.

Next Steps

Okay, now you know the lay of the location shooting land, it’s time to move onto next steps: scouting! If you don’t have anywhere particular in mind or are simply looking for a little bit of inspo, then you may want to check out a scouting database. Casting the widest net is LocationsHub which lists 100,000+ locations all over the country. And for those based in LA or New York then you’ve also got Giggster and Wrapal.

Shooting on location can be super stressful but just remember: people do it all the time and with the right crew, planning, and information you should be fine. And if your first time doesn’t go down so well, take it as a learning experience and get your butt back out there!

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